HEAT SHIMMERED off the deck of the good ship Discovery as Kyle Watt, 9, and his brother Justin, 6, both of Hackettstown, N.J., took charge of the windlass. Their task: to drop anchor in the James River.

"It was fun," Kyle said of the chore he shared with sailor-interpreter William Schultz, one of the many ways kids can experience early-17th-century life at Jamestown Settlement. In addition to reproductions of the three ships that brought 104 Englishmen to Virginia in 1607, young history buffs can explore a fort, a Powhatan Indian village and a section of riverfront.

Located 150 miles southeast of Washington, the 29-acre living-history museum re-creates America's first permanent English colony. Maintained by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, the museum includes the outdoor Colonial settlement and a building with an exhibit gallery, theater, gift shop and cafe.

My family and I began a recent visit by boarding the Susan Constant, the largest of the three ships. Like those long-ago passengers, we scuttled through the cramped quarters and lay on straw-filled mattresses. We touched reproductions of leather mugs, wooden bowls and playing cards.

The Englishmen who stepped off those boats almost 400 years ago were ill-equipped for life in the New World. Largely gentlemen, rather than farmers or craftsmen, they hoped for quick wealth in the form of gold or the discovery of a shortcut to the spice-rich East. After erecting a fort and struggling to grow food, most died that first winter, according to an introductory film in the exhibit building. But under the leadership of Capt. John Smith, the settlers buckled down to build thatched huts, a church, storehouse and guardhouse, which are re-created in the fort. They tried producing and exporting glass, potash and lumber before finding their "gold" -- tobacco. Families can see this cash crop growing lushly green in the settlement garden, finger a harvested leaf and smell it drying in the storehouse.

Throughout the museum, costumed interpreters acquaint visitors with daily life in the colony. Since daily life meant lots of chores, 21st-century onlookers are encouraged to pitch in and help. My daughter, Christy, 61/2, loved kneading bread with Elizabeth Dowling, while my husband got a kick out of hefting musketeer Bill Holloway's 12-pound firearm.

Around us in the fort, kids were having a great time learning as they played. Trying on the guards' heavy armor proved a favorite activity, despite the 90-degree heat, as did delivering sermons in the pulpit of the rustic Anglican church.

The re-created Indian village is a poignant reminder that the colonists disrupted and eventually displaced a long-thriving native culture. We visited several houses constructed of woven mats and stroked the beaver, fox and bear pelts inside. We even took a turn at scraping hides and grinding corn in large bowls.

In one shady spot, a deerskin-clad interpreter, Samuel McGowan, carefully chipped at pieces of stone. As he fashioned arrowheads and tools, McGowan told children in the audience about their role as young Native Americans. An 11-year-old boy would be learning to hunt, and Christy would be gathering nuts and berries and making mats. As for the group of giggling teenage girls, they'd already be married, he said with a smile.

"The Indians' story is an important part of Jamestown history," said Jim Holloway, director of museum education services (and brother of interpreter-musketeer Bill). "We want to represent the culture as accurately and respectfully as possible."

Such accuracy is key as the museum marks Jamestown's quadricentennial with special events over the next two years. Parts of the Indian village will be redesigned based on recent archaeological evidence. And the well-known story of Smith's dramatic rescue by Pocahontas will be told a little less dramatically in a new exhibit gallery, scheduled to open in fall 2006.

"We don't know what really happened," said Holloway of the tale (never verified) in which the Indian princess pleads with her father for the life of the captured captain. Smith, who had a reputation for boastfulness, didn't write of the incident until Pocahontas was dead. The exhibit will put forth what is known -- and let viewers decide what more to believe. In playing down the drama, the exhibit also strives for a more realistic presentation of Pocahontas, with period images and a recounting of her life. "She was a person, not just an icon," Holloway said.

To give a sense of early Colonial times, the exhibit in the new 30,000-square-foot gallery will also feature models of an early Virginia farm, African slave cabin and Indian village, as well as most of the artifacts and interactive displays now in a 7,200-square-foot gallery. Must-sees in the smaller gallery include a strongbox stuffed with pieces of eight Colonial tobacco pipes and homemade marbles, wooden dolls and other children's toys.

The museum kicks off Jamestown's 400th anniversary next summer when a new reproduction of the Godspeed sets sail for major East Coast cities. And an outdoor amphitheater, opening in late 2006, will enliven the settlement with musical and theatrical programs. In addition, under the umbrella group Jamestown 2007, the museum is planning with various organizations for celebratory events across Virginia. (For a regularly updated list of activities, check www.historyisfun.org for the museum and www.jamestown2007.org for Virginia programs.)

"We're always learning new things that change how the story of the past is told," said museum educator Holloway. "History is not just a bunch of facts but a dynamic process. It will be interesting to see how these same facts get interpreted in 50 years."

JAMESTOWN SETTLEMENT -- Route 31 south, nine miles southwest of Colonial Williamsburg. 888-593-4682 (toll-free) or 757-253-4838. www.historyisfun.org. From Washington, take Interstate 95 south to I-295 south. Take Exit 28A (I-64 east), then take exit 234 (Lightfoot). Turn right onto Route 199 and follow for eight miles, turning right at second traffic light onto Jamestown Road (Route 31). Open daily 9 to 5, with extended hours to 6 p.m. through Aug. 15. Closed Christmas and New Year's Day. $11.75 adults, $5.75 for ages 6 to 12, free for ages 5 and younger. Pass combining Yorktown Victory Center is $17 adults, $8.25 for ages 6 to 12, free for ages 5 and younger. (Following Colonial Parkway, Yorktown Victory Center is 20 miles away.) Allow two to three hours to explore the settlement.

DIGGING INTO THE PAST

Only about one mile from the re-created Jamestown Settlement are the remains of the actual fort built by the first colonists. At Historic Jamestowne, visitors can tour the ruins, watch archaeologists at work and view recovered artifacts. Curious about early enterprise? Costumed interpreters demonstrate glassmaking, a craft supplanted by tobacco growing as the Colonial moneymaker.

HISTORIC JAMESTOWNE -- Adjacent to Jamestown Settlement. 757-229-0412. www.historicjamestowne.org. Follow directions to Jamestown Settlement. Follow Route 199 for 9.5 miles; turn right at fourth traffic signal onto Colonial Parkway and follow parkway to its end and the entrance. Open daily 8:30 to 4:30, with extended hours to 5:30 through Labor Day. $8 adults, free for ages 16 and younger. Pass combining the Yorktown Battlefield is $10 adults, free for ages 16 and younger. (Following the Colonial Parkway, the Yorktown Battlefield is 23 miles away.) Open 9 to 5, the site's visitor information station includes exhibits and gift shop. The site is jointly administered by the Colonial National Historical Park (under the National Park Service) and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.

Kyle Watt, 9, left, and brother Justin, 6, of Hackettstown, N.J., give interpreter William Schultz a hand on the Discovery at Virginia's Jamestown Settlement. Visitors shape a canoe at Jamestown Settlement; colonists settled the area almost 400 years ago.At the museum's Powhatan village, visitors can learn about grinding corn.